AN INTERVIEW WITH SAMANTHA POWER
14 March 08
Samantha Power is professor of practice of global leadership and public
policy at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where she was the
founding executive director (1998-2002). She is the recent author
of Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save
the World (see our review on p. 10). Her book, A Problem from Hell:
America and the Age of Genocide (New Republic Books) was awarded the
2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
Power’s article in the New Yorker on the horrors in Darfur won the
2005 National Magazine Award for Best Reporting. In 2007, Power
became a foreign policy columnist at Time magazine. From 1993-96,
she covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a reporter for the
U.S. News and World Report, the Boston Globe and the New Republic.
She remains a working journalist, reporting from such places
as Burundi, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and
contributing to the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and the New York
Review of Books. Earlier this month, Power resigned from her position
as senior political advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The following interview with Samantha Power was conducted for the
documentary film "The Armenian Genocide," directed and produced by
Emmy Award-winning producer Andrew Goldberg of Two Cats Productions
( ). Short segments of the interview appeared in
the documentary. It is published here, in the Armenian Weekly, for
the first time and in its entirety.
The Weekly would like to thank Andrew Goldberg and Two Cats TV for
Q–Can you discuss where the actual word "genocide" comes from,
it’s Greek and Latin origins and so forth?
Samantha Power. –"Genocide" is a hybrid between the Greek genos for
people or tribe, and the Latin cidere, cide, for killing.
Q–Could you go into the history of the word and Raphael Lemkin?
S.P. –The word "genocide" was invented by Raphael Lemkin, a
Polish-Jew, who in the interwar period tried to mobilize states and
statesmen to care about what he saw as the imminent destruction of
ethnic, national and religious groups. He was partially concerned
about the Jews but he also had concerns about other groups that he
felt were threatened around the world.
So he tried to get the League of Nations to take this issue seriously
and to ban this crime, which at the time he called "barbarity"–the
crime of the destruction of groups. He was ignored and in some cases
laughed and yawned out of the conference. He went back to Poland
and, six years later, Hitler invaded Poland, allegedly declaring,
"Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?"
Lemkin lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust. He spent his
days during the Holocaust trying to understand why in the build up
to World War II, he had been so unsuccessful in convincing states
and statesmen to care about what to him looked like the imminent
destruction of the Jews. He told himself that his number one failing
was that he didn’t have a word that was commensurate to the gravity of
what would become Hitler’s crime. And so his notebooks were filled with
his efforts to find that word. He struggled to find a word that was
commensurate with the horrors that had occurred against the Armenians
in 1915, and then the ones that were ongoing in World War II against
the Jews. In 1941, he came up with the word "genocide."
Q–Why is it necessary to use the word "genocide" to describe what
happened to the Armenians in 1915?
S.P- What the word "genocide" connotes is a systematic campaign of
destruction. If you simply call the horrors of 1915 "crimes against
humanity" or "atrocities," it doesn’t fully convey just how methodical
this campaign of slaughter and deportation really was. There are
very few paradigmatic cases of genocide where you can really see
either through the words of the perpetrators or through the policies
undertaken in pursuit of the goal to annihilate a certain group–in
this case, the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire. I think
that’s why Armenians and other historians look at the record and can
come to no other conclusion than this word "genocide" applies to this
methodical campaign of destruction.
At the time the atrocities were being carried out, the perpetrators
boasted about what it was they were trying to do: They were going to
solve the Armenian problem by getting rid of the Armenians. In the
aftermath of the atrocities of 1915, perpetrators were prosecuted for
the crimes that they committed. Now, the word "genocide" did not exist
then. It wouldn’t come into existence for another 25 years. But there
was widespread knowledge that what had been attempted was a campaign
of destruction, hence, genocide.
What is so tragic is that in the wake of the Armenian horrors and in
the wake of the trials of Turkish perpetrators, a blanket of denial
has smothered Turkey and there’s no willingness to acknowledge what
was boasted about at the time.
Q–What impact did the suffering of the Armenians have on Lemkin?
S.P.– In the 20’s and the 30’s, Lemkin became a kind of amateur
historian of mass slaughter, and the case that really moved him was
that of the Armenians. He spent months and months just going through
the archives and trying to understand how such a crime could have been
committed in Europe. He was a great believer in European civilization,
and what he encountered in the record was what would later become
known as an orientalist framing of what had occurred: The perpetrators
were these Turks and they weren’t really Europeans. They were tribal
savages, Muslim hordes, and Europe would never suffer from anything
quite like that, it was argued.
But as he studied the records he understood that the Armenian case
offered great insight into how genocides occur. He understood the
way in which the Armenians were branded by the Turkish government at
the time, and he saw the dehumanization of Armenians as a community
and indeed how they lacked some of the perks of people of Turkish
ethnicity and Muslim fate.
All this became very much a part of his effort to understand what the
signals would be when a regime was intent on wiping out part of its
population. In terms of the genocide itself, he was struck by the way
in which the Turkish government first went after the intellectuals
and the local leaders of the Armenian communities in the towns. He
also made frequent reference to the way in which the deportation
of Armenians became as effective an implement of genocide as those
executions in the town squares. He saw that you could destroy a group
not simply by rounding up the men or the leaders of the community
and hanging them or machine-gunning them, but by actually deporting a
group from a country and, especially in the Armenian case, sending them
into conditions where there was no way that they could survive. So,
you were actually going to achieve the same results with a machine
gun but it was going to be much cheaper and it was going to draw much
Q–What is the effect of genocide denial?
S.P. –I think denial is devastating both for the victims or
descendents of victims on the one hand and for the descendents of
perpetrator societies on the other. For victims or their family
members, there just can’t be anything worse than living through
the loss, the obliteration of your livelihood, your home, and the
systematic extermination of your family– extermination that is
accompanied by the taunt of "no one will ever know," "no one will
ever remember," "no one will ever believe you, even if you make it
out of here, no one will believe you."
So you live through all of that, you make it out, you’ve lost
everything and then you tell your story, just the story you can best
remember through all the trauma. The details stick and are sort of
inexorably planted in the backs of the eyes so you can’t see anything
else that goes on in your life without sort of filtering it through
the prism of death. But however you come to deal with the trauma,
you tell your story and you’re told not only by the Turkish government
or by Turkish citizens, but also by the American government and other
Western governments that what you lived through didn’t really happen
quite that way. You are told that it wasn’t a plot to destroy you or
your family and it wasn’t an assault on civilian life. It was a war,
there was a rebellion, and it was just a counter-insurgency campaign
by the Turks. And, you know, unfortunately some civilians got caught
up in that counter-insurgency campaign. In war, bad things happen.
Imagine what that would feel like. You survive and you live with those
memories, you tell your truth, a truth you were told you would never
get to tell, and then you’re told that your truth is inadequate or
is subjective or is overly emotional and inaccurate.
The other community that I think denial has affected in a very
harmful way is of course the community in whose name these horrors
Turkish officials and citizens today had nothing to do with the
acts that were perpetrated, with the forced marches, the executions
and the hangings that took place in public squares. But because all
that information is acquirable, because the genocide is manifestly
knowable, they are complicit in denying a truth. As a result, they
are asked to go back to their history and to scrutinize it carefully,
they are thus asked to learn what there is to be learned about why
the genocide was carried, and thus of course asked to incorporate
lessons from that period.
No state is immune to excesses and many states, including the United
States, are liable to these kinds of excesses. The key is to revisit
what has been done in your name by your state as a way of trying to
inoculate yourself from future excesses. The Turkish government is
nowhere close today to committing atrocities of the scale that were
carried out in 1915, but human rights is a big issue in Turkey and I
think by kind of closing their ears and their eyes to what has gone
on in the past and by spending such resources to ensure that this
climate of denial persists, they’re really missing an opportunity to
create more amicable ties with their neighbors.
But they’re also missing an opportunity to understand their history
and to apply the lessons so that those kinds of atrocities don’t ever
get carried out again.
Q–So, specifically in the Turkish case, how should one respond to
denial? Do you debate history? How do you respond to denial?
S.P.–Denial is very hard to respond to. It’s almost like little
kids who block their ears and say, "I’m not listening, I’m not
listening." It’s very hard to have a rational conversation because
every set of facts that is presented in defense of the truth is met
with a whole series of claims about the future threat posed by those
Armenians to Turkish existence. You know, there’s an awful lot of
extrapolation that is done in order to justify the deportations. So
you end up having a very fruitless and very frustrating debate in
which they say, "Well, yes, but the Armenians would have become a
threat had they not been removed, had the problem not been solved."
Sometimes you can make headway talking to genocide deniers by pointing
out that by using the word "genocide," you’re not saying that Talaat,
the Minister of Interior in Turkey in 1915, was intending to put
Armenians into gas chambers and exterminate every last one of them
as the Nazis did.
Sometimes you can make headway by simply saying you know genocide does
not mean the Holocaust. What it means is a campaign of destruction that
includes extermination or execution but also can entail outright ethnic
cleansing and deportation. They think that when we say "genocide,"
we’re saying that Talaat intended to exterminate every last member of
the Armenian group. What genocide actually means, what Lemkin actually
intended, was that you create a definition around destruction and not
around outright extermination because if you make the definition of
genocide extermination of everyone, if you make Hitler the standard,
then you’ll inevitably act too late, you’ll inevitably act only when
you have proof that every last member of the group has been destroyed
or has been systematically murdered. So sometimes you can make some
headway by explaining what it is you have in mind when you use the
word. But generally the barriers and the cataracts that have given
rise to this denial for so many decades are pretty impenetrable. So
what I have suggested to Armenian friends and colleagues is that the
focus be on building a kind of fortress of fact and truth that gets
salient and gets picked up by communities other than the Turks of
Turkey or the Turkish government or even the U.S government.
So if every scholar referred to the Armenian genocide as a precursor
to the Holocaust, if in talking about the Holocaust they talked about
the ways in which Hitler learned from what had been done by the Turks
to the Armenians and made reference to that kind of community of
perpetrators that really has existed throughout time, it would be
an immensely effective way of building a record that no amount of
Turkish government denial would be able to blot out.
When I wrote A Problem from Hell and included the Armenian genocide,
I actually expected in city after city to have to defend the inclusion
of that case–because I understood how much controversy there was about
use of the term "genocide"–and what amazed me was that the people who
raised their hands were always either Turkish officials or individuals
who had been sent out by the Turkish embassy in order to stack the
meetings. Not even on one occasion did I have anybody who wasn’t
affiliated in some way with the Turkish cause challenge the inclusion
of the Armenian genocide among the major genocides of the 20th century.
That’s a sign that already Turkish deniers are becoming the
equivalent–socially and culturally–of Holocaust deniers. Where
you hear somebody raise their hand in the back of the room and say
"the gas chambers didn’t exist" or "Hitler wasn’t intending to
exterminate the Jews," you know you look at them like they’ve lost
their minds. You know that they’ve missed that History 101 course or
that they have some kind of ulterior agenda. The very same is true now
of people who deny the Armenian genocide. So you can argue that even
though official recognition remains elusive for Armenians–and that’s
incredibly tragic for those who survived the genocide and who are
now passing away, that they haven’t seen the Turkish government give
them the recognition that they deserve–on the other hand, through
their efforts and the efforts of their descendants, there is now a
historical record that shows that this genocide did occur and that
it has rendered deniers the equivalent, almost, of Holocaust deniers.
And I think strengthening that historical record, strengthening public
awareness through film, through art, through literature, through course
syllabi at universities and elementary, middle and high schools,
is the way that this genocide is going to become official fact. And
ultimately, the day will come when neither the Turks nor the American
government is going to be able to deny it any longer.
Q–So when you did engage them, was it in terms of the history or the
larger aspects? Getting into the debates is, it seems, not dangerous
but problematic. Isn’t it possible that that seed of doubt is still
planted in this context much more so than the Holocaust?
S.P.–Well, there’s certainly more doubt and ignorance around the
Armenian genocide among ordinary non-Armenian citizens than there is
around the Holocaust, there’s no question. But if you had talked to
American citizens in the 50’s or even the 60’s, you would’ve seen an
awful lot of ignorance about the Holocaust as well. The difference
is that because we finally got involved in World War II to defeat
Hitler, the basic narrative about American foreign policy was that we
had gotten involved to stop a monster and therefore it was perfectly
plausible to believe that the monster had committed the Holocaust.
In the Armenian case, because we hung back, because the U.S government
hung back and didn’t get involved on the basis of the atrocities or
even on the basis of the threat to European stability and European
welfare, and because we got involved so late, it’s easier for Americans
to think of World War I as a much more confused time in which everyone
seemed to be fighting everybody else. So, it’s easier for Turkish
deniers to deny the genocide because there’s less of a historical
foundation in public consciousness in Western countries.
Having said that, I think the Armenians have been more successful than
they are willing to give themselves credit for in building an awareness
of the genocide. But part of the problem with the Armenian recognition
campaign is that it has been led almost exclusively by Armenians. Now,
that shouldn’t make a difference; nobody knows better what was done
to the Armenians than the Armenian community in this country or the
Armenian survivors spread throughout the world. But, for example, one
of the things that had great credibility at the time of the Armenian
genocide was the reporting of Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador in
the Ottoman Empire, who reported back about what was occurring, and it
was his reports that then got picked up by the New York Times. A lot
of books have been written about the Armenian genocide by Armenians,
but I think one of the reasons Turks in particular have latched on to
the first chapter of my book is that I’m not Armenian and I didn’t
come into this with some "big bias" toward the Armenian community,
and I think that is very threatening to a denier community.
If somebody from the outside comes in and says, I’ve looked at the
Turkish claims and I’ve looked at the Armenian so-called claims and
I’ve decide that a genocide did occur, that is very problematic for
the Turkish government and perhaps very
gratifying–I hope–for the Armenian community. But there should be
many more people from the outside making the films, drawing attention
to the art that was produced in the aftermath of the genocide,
writing the books and pouring over the sources.
Q–Why do particular nations deny genocide and then why does Turkey
deny the genocide? Is it about pride? Is it about not wanting to be
labeled internationally as another Germany? Is it about the reparations
and the issue of money?
S.P.–Deniers in general have several ways of evading
responsibility. One very characteristic response is "They started it,"
"they rose up." The "they," of course, is a whole group that rose up,
the implication is that any abuse that was carried out was in excess
of what was ordered but it was very much in response to this sort of
first-order sin which was the rebellion. And in the case of the Turks,
that’s what they say about the Armenians. That the Armenians teamed up
with the Russians, that Turkey was at war, and that it had to get rid
of any traitors within their midst because of the security threat that
was posed, the existential threat to Turkey as a country and to the
lives of Ottoman citizens. So "they started it" is sort of recourse
number one. The second recourse is uncontrolled elements. They say,
"We as a state didn’t have any intention of harming Armenian civilians
or citizens, but again once you get involved in counter-insurgency
campaigns, bad things tend to happen. It’s really unfortunate, but
name a war in which torture, the killing of civilians, the raping of
women, hasn’t occurred."
Denier communities, I think, deny for lots of good, sound, totally
immoral but prudential reasons. Denier communities deny atrocities
carried out not even by them but by their predecessors for prudential
reasons and for emotional reasons. Prudentially, they really don’t want
to have to deal with the claims of the descendants to this alleged
genocide, they do not want to have to pay reparations for crimes,
and more fundamentally, they don’t want the rights of return to be
established, they don’t want to have to manage property claims.
Another factor is just plain old unwillingness to wrap your mind
around atrocities carried out by people like you. I think it’s again
the same factors that made Americans very unwilling to believe reports
of torture in Guantanamo, in Bagram, in Afghanistan or in Abu Ghraib
in Iraq. They’re the same factors you see at work when it comes to
Turkish disbelief to this day that their kin could have rounded up
civilians, executed them in public squares, and sent whole families
out into the desert with no provision made for them, and that most
Turks as a whole could have stood by while their neighbors were being
systematically butchered. I think it’s really hard to wrap your mind
around that and to admit the crime. Turkey is not alone in denying
abuses carried out long ago. The difference is that the Armenian
community has mobilized in a far more effective way than many other
victim groups and survivor groups.
Q–Do you think that recognition brings emotional or otherwise closure
to the victim group? Or isthat an exaggeration or a fantasy? Is that
something that you think will happen?
S.P.–To a certain extent, once a surviving community decides that
something is important, it is important. I mean, the fact that so
many Armenian survivors, many of whom have passed away, pinned their
hopes on recognition as a form of closure, means that they were denied
closure. Had they said, "My goal is to make it into an American text
book," then they would’ve been able to achieve some form of closure.
In my experience with other victim groups, closure is a little
bit like an oasis in the desert. It’s out there as the place to
sort of strive to get to, but the closer you get, the further away
it seems. So I don’t know that closure should be the criteria for
demanding recognition. The reality is that the genocide happened,
and it is tremendously destructive to the descendants of Armenians
and to the few survivors who are left to be told that it didn’t
happen. Whether being told that it did happen gives them the closure
they need is not relevant. What’s relevant is it happened.
The question over whether or not recognition will bring closure or
won’t bring closure is a purely academic one. We’re nowhere close to
seeing the Turkish government or the U.S government at an official
level recognizing what was done. The best reason for recognition
is probably not closure because most of the people who needed it
most are no longer with us. But the reason for recognition is that
the genocide happened and denying that it happened has incredibly
painful, ongoing consequences for the few survivors who are left
and for the descendants who made only one promise to their dying
predecessors: that they would not die without seeing this genocide
recognized. And so for those reasons alone, regardless of whether
closure makes anybody feel whole– How can you feel whole after you
know between one and two million people were systematically taken from
this earth?– just on truth grounds and on deterrence and prevention
and in a way punitive grounds–that is, when you do something bad,
you should be known to have done something bad–for those reasons
alone, recognition is essential.
Q–How would you respond to someone saying that a documentary, like
this one, "should be objective and tell both sides of the story,
in this case, the Turkish and Armenian"? What would your response be
S.P.–I think that any journalistic or historical record needs to be
objective, but being objective is not the same as being neutral. You
know, you don’t need to bend over backwards to be neutral on whether
Hitler had a good argument for exterminating the Jews. There’s no
neutrality on Hitler possible. And for the same reason, I don’t think
that neutrality with regard to the truth of what happened in 1915
is required. We don’t meet every Jewish survivor’s claim about the
Holocaust with a German revisionist claim about how there were no gas
chambers. And I think in the Armenian case, as long as those of us who
come to the issue are fair-minded and do review the claims of Turkish
government officials, of Turks at the time, as long as we do our best
to go into it with our eyes open, if our objective conclusion is that
a genocide occurred, I don’t see why the Armenian genocide should be
held to a different standard than any other massive crime against a
people that has occurred throughout history.